Social Media Strategy

Are You a Marketing Cheater? The Continued Gamification of Attention

gamification of attention phone bookJay Baer Blog PostWe are addicted to shortcuts. Regardless of the structure and rules of the contest at hand, some among us will stretch the boundaries seeking an edge over our opponent. Perhaps this is just human nature, or maybe it’s more prevalent in America where we cherish our opportunity to have a strong role in our personal success. This insatiable desire to do more, to do better, to just do, is the psychological scaffolding thats supports hedge fund melt-downs, cyclists’ doping, and websites that sell college term papers.

Marketing is not immune.

Throughout history, in a quest to accrue more visibility in a competitive marketplace certain marketing professionals have sought an edge by exploiting loopholes. We don’t just want our fair share, we want more than our fair share, which creates a marketing and business culture that tolerates – rewards, even – the gamification of attention. Whether you view these activities as creative or nefarious is based on your own sense of situational ethics, but either way I find that when you remove them from the context of the battle in which they were waged, then often look silly in arrears. My friend Tom Webster, the brilliant market researcher and blogger and I were talking about this phenomenon recently when he pointed out how the platform changes, but the darting through loopholes remains.

Old Skool Gamification of Attention

A quick glance of my local phone book (yes, I still have one but I had to scour the house to find it) shows the gamification of attention in action. Evidently, the “all CAPS” bail bonds guys (shown above) get listed before the one CAP, then lower-case a’s bail bonds guys. This is the type of “at the margins of decency” tactic that probably has the all CAPS guys high-fiving in the conference room (or whatever bail bonds companies use as a company meeting space – courthouse steps?), but when you pull it out of its competitive context, seems pretty stupid.

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gamification of attention newspaperOn the front page of today’s local newspaper (yes, I still get one because I am a cranky, middle-aged man that has read a newspaper every day for the past 30 years) I found this sticker plastered across the masthead. This is the dead trees version of a pop-up ad, and like the AAAAAAAa routine, is used to divert attention away from whatever the victim was trying to do, funneling it instead toward yourself. I’m certain the successful purchase and placement of this sticker spurred high-fives in the conference room of whatever this sticker is actually promoting, which is manifestly unclear.

New Skool Gamification of Attention

The gamification of attention of course extends to search and inbound marketing, where the entire discipline boils down to a game of three-dimensional geek chess pitting your crafty and craven team against Google’s team of similarly wired savants. (Spoiler alert: Google always wins). Whether it’s keyword inclusions, garnering back links, or driving link bait with pointless infographics that are a crime against both data and visuals, many companies will do whatever they can to generate a disproportionate share of attention. Even a venerable brand like JC Penney will color outside the lines to stay relevant, as proven when their pyramid of black-hat SEO tactics were exposed last year. (I wonder if they called the AAAAAAAa bail bonds guys?)

Are You Aggressive or Out of Bounds?

Seemingly, the technology of marketing has changed more in the last three years than in the prior thirty, the byproduct of which is more opportunities to try to best your competitors through any possible means. Remove your social media efforts from their present competitive context and ask yourself whether purchasing Facebook fans (either directly, or indirectly through advertising) is creating business value or is a new version of AAAAAAAa bail bonds in the phone book? Is following people on Twitter just so some of them will follow back a sound tactic, or an attempt to gamify attention? Is artificially inflating your YouTube views a smart way to outfox your competitors, or is it cheating? Is finding a potential customer talking to one of your competitors on Twitter, and then jumping into that conversation to try to win them over an aggressive marketing outreach program, or something less noble?

What you’re willing to do and how much of this you’re willing to embrace as a marketer is based on a lot of factors both personal and professional. But one thing I know for sure is that every single one of these tactics, from the phone book, to the newspaper, to SEO, to social media gamification, may be a positive for you and your brand but are ALWAYS a negative for customers and consumers because it creates artificial awareness that has neither been earned, nor granted.

Mike D’Antoni is the new coach of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, and has a thesis for how and why his up-tempo offensive style works:

The ball finds energy.

When players work hard to get open, and move without the ball they receive shot opportunities in favorable on-court situations. This benefits each player because they get more easy shots, and consequently benefits the collective. This is the way marketing is supposed to work, at least in a market-driven economy. Attention should accrue to hard-working, smart companies with disproportionately good products and services, and winners should be dictated by customers voting with their clicks and dollars.

Marketing should be a meritocracy, like the high speed, motion offense D’Antoni employs. But often, it’s not. Sometimes it’s the gamification of attention. And sometimes it’s the new trend of big technology companies buying out social media software businesses and forcing corporate customers to use them as part of “the stack” – a theoretically holistic solution that rarely offers best-of-breed options across-the-board. Every time marketing strays from a meritocracy, certain companies win, and customers and consumers lose.

Converged Media Assists Gamification

The Convergence of Paid, Owned & Earned Media
This is the scary outgrowth of the rise of Converged Media, where attention that’s earned and attention that’s purchased is combined in seamless, unprecedented ways. Altimeter Group analysts Jeremiah Owyang and Rebecca Lieb wrote an excellent study on this phenomenon a few months back, and we talked to them at length about it on the Social Pros podcast. One of the most common examples of Converged Media is the Facebook promoted posts feature (see my rant about it here) that enables/requires companies to pay to reach a larger share of their Facebook fans. This is buying attention frosting to apply to your organically created attention cupcake. In fact, you can even promote your own personal posts on Facebook now, so if I want to be sure that all 100,000+ subscribers to my Facebook feed know what wine I’m drinking, I can pay for the privilege of doing so.

Converged Media may create exciting new opportunities for companies, but by combining objective reality and purchased reality it muddies the water of attention. Wasn’t the whole point of social media that the power was shifting back toward the consumers, who could shape perception through product reviews, and recommendations and chatter? Two years ago, respected marketers were saying that “brands are simply a collection of what people think and say about them.” If that’s true, then where does AAAAAAa Bail Bonds and social media gamification fit into that scenario?

Maybe brands are simply a collection of what people think and say about them, unless you’re behind on your quarterly goals or the CEO can’t handle competitors having more followers on Twitter, in which case it’s gamification and converged media to the rescue. Everyone reading this will be faced with these decisions. You’re probably already faced with them. My appeal to you is to try to resist the easy “win” offered by these shortcuts, and always keep the customer in mind. If the tactic you’re thinking about employing truly benefits the end consumer, by all means give it a try. If instead it truly benefits your company at the expense of the consumer and marketing meritocracy, maybe there’s a better way?

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  1. says

    Very thought-provoking post Jay. I found a greater connection in teaching defense than in the D’Antoni offense though.

    An up-tempo offense is fun and easy to teach. Keep moving and you will get rewarded. There are more shots to go around so you are going to get yours if you keep pace.

    Defense, on the other hand, requires you to buy into something that doesn’t guarantee immediate accolades. In fact, focusing on yourself creates attention for you and consequences for your team. Sometimes, the leader in steals is also the one that leaves her team in the worst situation. Cheating on defense to get a steal (and the attention) requires your team to cover for you.

    The best defense requires you to put team first. Sacrifice leaving your man for the benefit of stopping the ball. Making the goal of every position the same…get the ball back without letting the other team score.

    I love your message of ethics, goals that matter, and putting the customer first. That’s a much bigger commitment than many are willing to give. As much as I love an up-tempo offense, team defense is what resonated with me.

  2. nectafy says

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. It’s something that has bothered me, but I haven’t been able to articulate it the way you did here.

    I’m pretty old-school, and so I’ve held to the concept that it’s always right to do what’s right. And instead of trying to game a system, you should focus on improving what you do, so that it actually provides more value to your consumers. That type of approach, though requires hard work both when it seems to be “working” and when it does not.

    I agree with Vince’s comment that the commitment that is required from companies for this kind of approach is definitely a “long-term” strategy and most seem to be content with going for the quick-easy win.

    Keep up the timely insights!

    • says

      Absolutely. It’s about balancing patience and best practices. The great irony is that digital marketing happens fast, but results gained the right way accrue slowly.

  3. LeBlancly says

    Yes! I can’t imagine the energy expended in legally adding those As to one’s business name and making sure the phone book publisher updates your listing, but I can imagine the energy companies pour into these less-than-ideal marketing tactics as I’ve seen it happen. Yes, optimize your SEO, but take the rest of that energy and use it to make your product and services better.

    • vincej says

      the entire argument hinges on marketing being a meritocracy.

      Can you point to one point in history where it was?

      Do we truly expect digital marketing to be noble?
      Gaming continues because it works, worked, continues to work.


  4. says

    The idea of meritocracy is nice. But even with Google’s supposed emphasis on “quality,” it’s not showing up in rankings. I’m thinking of a client who has a modern, up-to-date website full of great content. He is consistently outranked by competitors whose websites haven’t been touched since 2006 and are full of poorly written text, misspelled words, outdated information. But they have all the SEO tricks in place and the requisite number of Google reviews, so they rank higher. It’s still about who has the most money and time to invest in the techniques that make Google happiest.

  5. says

    Super, thoughtful piece, Jay. I think all of this fits under the umbrella of arbitrage. As marketing economies become more “efficient” (in the marketplace sense) and information is more equitably distributed, arbitrage becomes more and more difficult to profit from. But in the early days of any platform or medium, information inequalities create opportunities to profit from arbitrage, and not from profitably delighting customers. It’s a strategy, for sure, but you can never take a day off–you’ll spend your days like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland: forever running just to stay in the same place.


  6. Tony Ventrice says

    While this is a very interesting post, I think you’ve done a disservice to the concept ‘gamification’. Gamification is the practice of using game elements to improve a user experience.

    The concept you’re talking about (exploiting the rules of a system to extract an advantage) is typically known as ‘gaming’.
    For example:
    ‘Peter cheats on his taxes, he’s really gaming the system’
    You wouldn’t say:
    ‘Peter cheats on his taxes, he’s really gamifying the system’.

    Here’s ‘gamifying’ in a sentence:
    ‘Linda’s trying to improve adoption of our new enterprise software by gamifying it’

  7. says

    Just to re-affirm my post from November 26th: I was reading an article in Entertainment Weekly this morning, and the author wrote something to the effect of, “Oprah Winfrey tweeted to her 15M Followers, ‘this film is delightful!'”

    As we covered in, “In Defense of Follower Count,” Ms. Winfrey more likely has closer to 3.5M Followers (still a hefty count, no doubt). But as long as you and I and everyone we know continues to utilize the number Twitter puts next to our avatar, then PERCEPTION IS REALITY.

    Articles have been written complaining about Follower Counts for the longest time (this well-written one just adds to the ever-growing pile), but whining about the problem does nothing to change it.

    Am I incorrect…?

  8. says

    Eloquently stated and elegantly presented. A tip of the hat and two thumbs up for this one, Jay!

    I almost fell off my chair last week at the ophthalmology practice where I coordinate the marketing. A sales rep (whose name and company name will remain … nameless) actually had the crust to suggest “buying” Facebook fans/friends/followers for our biz page. OY!! I think you’ll appreciate my response to her not-so-brilliant suggestion, Jay. I simply asked, “How much do you pay for your friends? What’s the going rate these days to purchase a friendship?” Sadly, she still didn’t ‘get’ why I wasn’t in favor of her (nincompoop) idea. Ugh.

  9. says

    Nice to see that you haven’t been hypnotized by the splendor of Sparklemotion Marketing. It is all too easy for marketers to just use the tools, and the tools are becoming pretty powerful. I really wish I could blame the navigational crisis of modern marketing on our snappy tools, but I can’t. We all need to include the customer experience, their perspective, as the first thou shalt, before we do anything else.

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